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Russia: NATO Expansion Tops Moscow's Agenda This Week

Moscow, 19 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - NATO expansion tops the agenda in Moscow this week with a series of visits from the German and Italian foreign ministers and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

All the high-level visits are aimed at softening Russia's staunch opposition to the Atlantic Alliance's plans to accept new members from Central and Eastern Europe. Although there are some signs of common ground and of possible compromise, both NATO and Russia appear to digging in their heels on the issue of NATO's expansion to the East.

Yesterday Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, after meeting with his German counterpart Klaus Kinkel in Moscow, said Russia would only accept what he called "a legally binding treaty" with NATO on future relations. He reiterated Moscow's opposition to the Alliance's expansion plans, but said Moscow was ready to discuss ways of reaching an agreement acceptable to both sides. Kinkel, for his part, said he hoped a special charter outlining relations between Russia and the Alliance could be agreed upon before the first invitations to join NATO are issued at a scheduled July Alliance summit in Madrid.

Their comments pointed up the crux of the disagreement between Russia and NATO. Moscow wants a formal treaty that would have to be ratified by the parliaments of the Alliance's 16 member states -- plus Russia. NATO fears such a treaty could get bogged down in parliamentary debates, turning its planned speedy expansion into a protracted legalistic battle.

Albright arrives in Moscow tomorrow for talks with both Primakov and President Boris Yeltsin. Since Sunday, she has been touring Europe to drum up support for new initiatives aimed at reducing Russian resistance to NATO's expansion Eastward. Yesterday, in her first address at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, she called for the establishment of a NATO-Russia joint brigade, to complement a previously proposed joint council to promote dialogue on common security issues.

In her address, Albright said, "Our goal is an undivided Europe." But she admitted that Russia is unlikely to reverse its opposition to enlargement. Albright had earlier said that her trip to Moscow is designed to explain that the Alliance's expansion plans pose no security threat Russia.

In an attempt to get her message across unfiltered, Albright granted a television interview to the popular Russian political-affairs show, "Itogi" ("Summaries"), which was shown on Sunday. In it, she said that NATO expansion is not aimed at Russia, but is meant to provide security and confidence to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

Primakov, in a separate interview on the same program, stressed that any agreement with the Alliance on a charter should be legally binding. He said NATO should take steps to transform itself into a political rather than a military organization.

But Primakov also said Moscow's security concerns could be reduced by changing the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty so as to limit NATO's ability to move troops and weapons onto the territories of any new member states. Proposals to revise the treaty are expected to be discussed later this week at a meeting in Vienna. Moscow has long demanded that the CFE treaty, which was signed in the waning days of the Cold War, be changed to take into account the new security situation following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Albright's visit to Moscow follows a string of tough statements last week by senior Russian officials against NATO expansion. Yeltsin's foreign-policy advisor, Dmitry Ryurikov, told a roundtable on the Alliance's planned enlargement that NATO's refusal to grant Russia a veto on security matters was "unfair and wrong." Ryurikov also criticized NATO Secretary General Javier Solana's tour last week of several former Soviet republics, which Ryurikov said was tantamount to an attempt to prepare them for Alliance membership.

Adding to the heated Russian tone on NATO expansion was Security Council chief Ivan Rybkin, who said in a newspaper interview that Russia would be ready to defend itself with nuclear weapons if threatened by NATO. And the Russian media itself has been equally strident. Yesterday the daily "Izvestia," referring to Albright as the "iron lady," said her European tour is "aimed at demonstrating to the allies that the enlargement of NATO and its rejuvenation will be conducted according to an overseas script."

Some recent public opinion polls have suggested that most Russians are far more concerned with the country's mounting economic problems than they are with NATO expansion. But the increased media attention -- and hostility -- to NATO enlargement could end up changing many people's minds.